We need a more balanced system for scientific research

Head of Health Research Board believes state should support research all the way from a discovery to the delivery of a product

Under the microscope: For society to really gain from a research investment all parts of the research continuum require funding

Under the microscope: For society to really gain from a research investment all parts of the research continuum require funding

Mon, Nov 4, 2013, 01:00

When you invest in scientific research you not only support a scientist and a lab. You are building human capital, creating economic wealth and serving societal needs. All of these areas and more benefit when you put money into research, says Enda Connolly the chief executive of the Health Research Board.

He understands the value of a research investment as much as anyone in the country. He worked in IDA Ireland for 32 years before taking on his current role, from which he steps down at the end of the year.

Over much of the time he worked with IDA Ireland he was deeply embedded in promoting Ireland’s research capacity, leveraging foreign direct investment in the hope of winning company support for Irish-based research centres. “We created an Irish product to sell research into the multinationals,” he says of the effort.

Certainly the work bore results. The organisation pulled in research-based investments of about €50m in 2000, he said. By 2008 this had risen to about €500m.

His experiences while holding a number of positions in IDA Ireland, including a five-year stint based in New York city, remained of value when he made what might seem an incongruous move from commercial enterprise to become head of the Health Research Board. It gave him a different perspective on the conduct of research and what value might come from it.

He has no doubt for example that research and innovation really will be the powerhouse to pull us out of the economic wilderness.

“Research and the impact from it achieve innovation in all sectors of society. When economic recovery comes research will be at the core of it, an emphasis on research will deliver that,” he says.

Life in commerce teaches one the value of a buck, and Connolly certainly expects to see a return on any State investment in research. But this does not exclusively mean a commercial return measured in start-up companies and jobs.

“Science is a socio-economic investment and it has a number of purposes,” he says. It results in highly qualified individuals who can make a contribution. Research funding serves societal needs; for example improvement in the delivery of health services. And of course it does support enterprise by bringing in investment and jobs. “You are investing in a fundamental capability that can deliver across the board.”

For this reason he argues we need to have a research system here that is balanced, one that provides support for all the stages from a research discovery through to the delivery of a product on a shelf. To really gain from a research investment all parts of this continuum require funding. “To me it is about balance. How do you get the balance right across that system.”

How indeed. When the then government started ploughing hundreds of millions of euro into our research system in 2000 it was all about the development of a profile in basic research. The pursuit of this agenda served Ireland in many ways, building up a pool of exceptional talent, giving us a reputation abroad for quality research and wonderful facilities. These gains in turn were used by IDA Ireland to win FDI and coax companies to move to Ireland, in the process creating jobs.

Yet basic research is not the whole picture and now the economic circumstances have changed. With unemployment high and financial resources difficult to find the current focus is rightly on the economic agenda and jobs, but as before that can’t be the only focus, says Connolly. So the balance is lost again with such a heavy emphasis on the jobs aspect of research investment.

He seeks balance in the work done by the board as well. It has made research investments of about €200m and has about €40m a year to spend on all forms of research. When he became chief executive the mix was about 80 per cent to 20 per cent in favour of blue skies and basic biomedical research. The remainder was put into the board’s other key areas of endeavour, bringing improvements to the health services, health policy and population studies.

He has brought this back now to about 50/50 with equal amounts going into the discovery process on the one hand and the effort to get more service out of the health service on the other. One promotes the delivery of new treatments and drugs, the other promotes improvements in how the health service does its business in delivering care at a moderate cost.

He is heartened that the Government continues to support research in the face of so many conflicting demands, provided of course that balance is brought back into the system.

“We didn’t have that balance but we are trying to do so now, but without the endless money,” he says. He believes that the delivery of a priority list of research areas to be funded by the State will help achieve this balance of funding and make the overall research system here work better, be more productive and deliver on its promise to deliver for our collective economic futures.